Directory Assistance

August 4, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

I don’t know why I became briefly obsessed with the 1940 Manhattan phone book when a Facebook friend linked to it yesterday, but I did. Nostalgia perhaps, though I wasn’t living in New York in 1940. I wasn’t living at all. But seeing the exchanges with names instead of numbers (area codes, of course, had not yet been invented) makes it just a little easier to imagine what life in New York was like three quarters of a century ago. 475 tells you nothing; GRamercy 5 evokes a neighborhood.*

I couldn’t find my wife’s family. In 1940 not everyone had a phone. Perhaps they didn’t get theirs (WAdsworth 8) until later.  Then I went looking for other people who might have been living in New York then.

(Click for a larger view.)

You could just pick up the phone and call J.D. Salinger,** who might prefer not to have been bothered, or Coleman Hawkins, who would probably want to go out for a few drinks.

Estee Lauder lived just a few blocks from me, and we shared an exchange – ENdicott 2, (The elegant Endicott Hotel, built in the 1890s, was just a few blocks north.)

You can browse the entire phone book here.

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*  “I know the last part of your number –  6160,” I years ago to a fellow West Sider, “but I can never remember – is it 479 or 749.”
“749,” he said as though it were obvious. “RIverside 9.”
That was decades ago. I still remember.

**   “What really knocks me out is a book that, when you
’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it. That doesn’t happen much, though.”

1 comment:

David J. Littleboy said...

Back in the day, Boston (and most other places) had similar systems, and it was pretty easy to remember numbers CA7-6146 was us: Capital 7 (for Beacon Hill). Andrew ate 8000 was one from an ad. When I was in grad school, they ran out of sensibly namable numbers, and my parents' new number was 367-6385, which I couldn't remember for the life of me, and it always irritated to have to look it up to call home. I showed it to a math major friend, and with absolutely no hesitation, he goes "Huh, you can't possibly forget that number. 36763 is a palindrome and 85 is 17 times 5 and multiples of 17 are rare beasts amongst two digit numbers."

I hate mathematicians.